Several colleagues from work recently visited New Orleans for training. And that got me thinking about Louisiana.
I come by my occasional use of “Y’all” honestly. It’s a part of my family history. Last summer we traced that history back to Louisiana, from New Orleans up the Mississippi River, to where my great grandmother spent her childhood. She was born in a flood year in a little house next to the river. A few years after her birth, that little house washed off the blocks into the river and the family was forced to move.
Their new home was on a plantation where they had servants, and, in the early 1900’s, my great grandma grew up with views about separation between white and black people. She told my dad she believed in “separate but equal”—and she truly meant equal. My dad did his best to convince her that separate never was and never would be equal.
Great Grandma’s father died when she was still young. The family eventually lost the plantation and relocated again.
I don’t remember my great grandmother, but I was close to her husband, my great grandfather. I adored him. My father adored him. I knew that Great Grandpa occasionally used racial slang my parents found unacceptable, and which we were never to use. I never heard my grandfather speak in a way that meant harm. His language came from his culture. I believe that if he lived now, he would have learned how to leave that language behind. He had a generous heart, and he loved people.
I believe that my great grandmother, who taught migrant children in a classroom near the border of Texas and Mexico, would now open up her classroom, and her heart, to any student of any color, background, or ability level.
People can change, and that’s the best I can hope for anyone.
People have a better chance of change when we can have open, productive dialogue about what is and has been hurtful and what can bring about healing.
Earlier this year, I had someone I respect tell me that the only problem with race is that we keep talking about it, and if we want to solve problems with race, we need to stop talking about it and just be color blind.
There was a time in my life when I naively believed that racial strife in America was a thing of the past. I have always been blessed to live around family members and friends from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I had college roommates from all over the world. I’m fortunate to have been accepted by friends from a variety of nationalities.
I remember a night in college when I sat down with roommates from Japan, and we exchanged stories about our grandfathers who served on opposite sides during World War II. My roommates had heard their grandfathers talk about the devastation caused by the bomb. We had an open, honest conversation, and our respect for each other grew.
Perhaps I thought that open, positive conversations were the norm. You don’t know what you don’t know.
I didn’t know until our family became a multi-ethnic family through the miracle and gift of adoption. And then I knew. Then we faced unexpected micro-aggressions connected to race.
The truth is that I still don’t know what I still don’t know. I can’t imagine what struggles some people face solely because of the color of their skin, their neighborhood, or a perceived disability. The only way I can learn is through open dialogue. I am so thankful when others are willing to be vulnerable enough to share their stories with me. I do the best I can to listen and to ask how I can support.
Acknowledging injustices and atrocities of the past does not require me to accept the burden of guilt. Rather, it invites me to seek change to end injustice and inequality now. It gives me the opportunity to be more fully aware of the needs of fellow travelers on Earth.
During my teacher training I had a class on social justice in education. We were required to memorize the professor’s definition of social justice so that we could write it on our end-of-semester test. Here’s his definition:
“Social Justice is the ability to pedagogically execute fair and equitable classroom practices that result in opportunity, access, and democratic, participatory learning.”
Yeah. The vocabulary is intense.
Here’s what it means to me. Social justice means inclusion. It means giving equitable opportunities to every student, regardless of their language, culture, background, abilities, or disabilities. It goes beyond that too. It means expressing interest when a student shares something about their culture that is different from mine. Maybe that means asking them to tell me more about their holiday and how they celebrate. Maybe that means asking what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable. Maybe that means allowing myself to be vulnerable. Doing so lets me help every student feel safe, respected, and honored in my classroom. That’s my definition of social justice.
A little over a year ago I was walking around a souvenir shop in Natchez, Mississippi, when a man at the counter asked with the slowest Southern drawl I had ever heard, “Do y’all wanna buy some praw-leans?” His voice had almost a magical quality, as if to say, “There’s nowhere to go—not a care in the world. Time will stop for you in this moment.” I remembered my mom telling me that pralines were my grandma’s favorite treat, and I couldn’t resist.
I love authentic representations of culture, and sometimes I have a need to re-create the authenticity I have found in other cultures by cooking their food. Making food helps me feel connected to people.
I made “praw-leans” this Saturday afternoon as I thought about Louisiana, my family history, and social justice. I thought about social justice as I stirred and stirred and watched the candy thermometer rise. I thought about authenticity and inclusion and the sweetness of the result.
And all of that fused into the finished product.
There are invitations all around us—voices beckoning us to slow down, to stop and see people for who they really are; to put ourselves in their shoes, to break down barriers and to lift those who are tired of the battle. We have both the power and the opportunity to change time in this moment.
Do y’all wanna try some praw-leans?